Music Theory and Practice – Common Practice Voice Leading
Voice Leading or Chorale Writing
What Is Voice Leading?
Voice Leading, also called Part Writing or Chorale Style Writing, is homorhythmic, heterophonic style of music composition. It is the style of music often associated with hymns, holiday carols, and patriotic songs. Music composed in this style of writing is based on triadic harmonies with occasional seventh chord harmonies and some non-chord tones added to create harmonic interest. The in-depth study of chorales and voice leading is a significant part of a music theory and practice education.
Why Do We Study Chorales?
Chorales are often used as a technical exercise to teach melodic and harmonic writing to musicians. They are often also used to teach sight reading skills and expression to choral singers, instrumental ensemble players, and keyboardists. Many bands, orchestras, chamber groups, and choirs will warm up with chorale or a aet of chorales. Many keyboardists use chorales as a starting point for improvisation. Additionally, composers since the Baroque period have similarly used chorales as inspiration for larger works. For example, J. S. Bach composed about 300 cantatas—we have about 200 of them today—that were all based on chorales!
Voice Leading has a set of guidelines that emerged as a result of compositional practice during the Common Practice Period. You are most likely familiar with terms such as B.C., A.D., BCE, and CE referring to eras in the Western Gregorian calendar, the Common Practice Period (CPP) is a specific era in Western Music History that spanned from the mid-Baroque Period (c. 1650) to the beginning of the Modern Period (c. 1900s). These guidelines primarily exist to maintain the sing-ability and independence of each voice while creating pleasing harmony.
Why Guidelines Are Better Than Rules
You may find textbooks and websites that refer to the guidelines as “rules,” however, I believe guidelines is the preferred choice. In music, there are no “rules.” There is common practice, traditions, genre, specific techniques, era specific conventions, and sonic or visual preferences, meaning choices composers make to result in a specific listener experience or notation choice.
Four Voices, Sometimes Three
Most Voice Leading is written in four-parts, soprano (S), alto (A), tenor (T), and bass (B) or SATB voices. However, some examples are composed in three-parts, soprano (S), alto (A), and baritone (B) or SAB voices. While many SATB or SAB arrangements are composed specially for singers, composers may also compose music that is intended to be fully instrumental in this style as well. The most famous examples are Bach’s more than 400 four-voice chorales, which are considered the basis from which the entire style emerged. Listen to a beautiful chorale from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Wie soll ich dich empfangen [How shall I receive you] in the video below.
Chorales From Exercises to "Real Music"
Composers such as Beethoven, Mahler, Satie, and Stravinsky have all included chorale-like sections in their instrumental music. However, it is Important to note that many more modern “chorales” do not necessarily follow the guidelines that came from Bach’s chorale writing, as heard in the example below “Choral inappétissant” [Unappetizing Chorale] from Erik Satie’s 1914 piano composition, "Sports and Divertissements” [Sports and Diversions].
Listen to Tuning Chorales for Band, Vol. 1 by Richard L. Saucedo to hear an example of instrumental chorale writing.
How To Notate A Chorale
An example of SATB writing:
Sometimes four part writing is composed in a “keyboard style” which may look like:
Voices may be moved to another position while maintaining the same harmonic realization to be more playable for keyboardists; this may look like:
Four Types of Motion
For more on motion, see my counterpoint article.
Parallel motion is when both voices move in the same direction by the same interval, both up by step, or both down by a third.
Oblique motion is when one voice stays the same and the other voice moves up or down by step or leap.
Contrary motion is when two voices move in opposite direction to each other by step or leap.
Similar motion is when both voices move in a similar direction, both up by step or leap or both down by step or leap.
In the CPP, there are specific intervals that are better suited for parallel motion than others. Composers prefer to use the most consonant intervals of thirds, sixths, and fourths in parallel motion, while avoiding parallel fifths and octaves. Dissonant intervals of seconds and sevenths are never used in parallel.
It is interesting to note that in the CPP style, parallel fifths and octaves are considered less sonically desirable when to modern ears, parallel fifths and octaves are often used and highly desirable, think of guitar power chords like Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991) or big piano bass octaves like in Sara Bareilles’ Love Song (2007). However, before more modern tastes evolved, they were considered less harmonically pleasing and actually antiquated as parallel fifth and octave harmony was popular prior to the CPP in the Medieval period as well as in folk music.
Typical Chorale Vocal Ranges from the CPP:
For more on vocal ranges, see my article on the voice as an instrument.
Melodies tend to be scalar, moving mostly step-wise but also including skips and some leaps.
Consecutive leaps should outline a triad.
Melodies are written with tendency tones, which are notes within the key that resolve in a specific direction. These notes include: the leading tone which typically resolves upward to the tonic and the fourth scale degree which revolves downward to the mediant or third scale degree. The second and sixth scale degrees generally resolve down by step.
Avoid all augmented intervals.
Leaps larger than a 4th and leaps of diminished intervals should change direction after the leap. For example, a leap upward should be resolved by downward scalar motion.
Triadic harmonies may include major, minor, and diminished chords. Augmented chords are generally avoided but may occur in harmonic minor compositions. Harmonies tend to be in the key, however, chorales may (and often do) modulate to other keys before returning to the original key.
Seventh chords may be used. Typically, these are dominant seventh chords (V7) but others do occur.
Harmonic spaces between the soprano, alto, and tenor is closer together, less than an octave. However, larger spacing between tenor and bass may be used.
Homorhymthic texture is used. Some non-chord chords may have momentarily independent rhythm.
Mostly, quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes are used more frequently with occasional eighth notes and even more rarely sixteenth notes.